With Dams of the West, Chris Tomson and Patrick Carney Ponder Obsolescence
"A lot of drummers do things other than drumming," Patrick Carney points out, a bit wryly, while discussing producing Youngish American, the solo debut from Vampire Weekend drummer Chris Tomson's Dams of the West. The Black Keys drummer teamed up with Tomson—or CT, to Vampire Weekend devotees—last year in Nashville, helping hone the garage-infused work that sees Tomson picking up the guitar and the mic to reveal himself as an at times too-smart-for-his-own-good songwriter in his own right.
Written in the wake of Vampire Weekend's four year tour hiatus, Youngish American delves into some of those "things other than drumming" to which Carney alluded: Like, say, the clumsy acceptance process of getting older (in Tomson's case, turning 30), figuring out who you are (beyond your band), and what eking out an adult life means in the shadow of an ugly bizarro version of the American Dream. Though written before last fall's presidential election, the album takes on a renewed ominousness having been released after it, with tracks like "Death Wish" offering meta reflections on the frivolities of perceived existential problems, and the privilege of being able to worry about those things to begin with.
"I had just gotten married, and there were a number of sort of transitional capital "A" Adult-type stuff happening that really made me want to process it, and the only way that I know of or am at all equipped to do is through music," Tomson explained during a recent visit to the VICE LA office. "So Dams of the West sort of came out of me sitting at a piano and working through a lot of stuff. It's not necessarily a therapy session, but I think a lot of songs are about a very specific moment of transition, of aging, and what that means or doesn't mean, and that's why the album is called Youngish American."
Below, we speak with Tomson about developing the project, the aging Pitchfork generation, and the process of figuring out just what it was he had to say after a decade behind the drum kit. Tomson also gave Carney a call in New York to talk honing the album and what drew him to collaborate on it in the first place.
Were solo records something that you've always planned to do, or did the band's break inspire you?
I would say I never felt a burning need to like, "Gotta be the front man, it's so boring back here. No one cares about me. Oh my god." I'd say it was more like I wanted to make music and write music. If it didn't end up being an album or it ended up being bad or something, so be it. But I think this sort of grew, I actually do think somewhat sincerely, authentically. Organically, I guess. Of coming up with a few songs and being like, oh. And then coming up with a few more and and like, Oh. And then coming up with a solid ten, cause you gotta have ten songs, can't be nine. Or I mean it's your album, of course you can. Eventually it sort of reached album length and it sort of felt like, as small as it may be, a world was created. Sort of a vibe that was obviously distinct from Vampire Weekend, related to whatever small degree, but felt like something that I wanted to pursue and wanted to put out there and wanted to perform for people and do interviews on Noisey radio on Beats1. But yeah, so it was not something where I was like, "Alright, need to make a solo album, let's write some tunes." It was kind of like, "Alright, what's going on here?" And then wrote some tunes, and realized that there was an album.
When you decide you want to take on a project like this that's different from playing the drums, how do you figure out what it is you want to say?
That's a very good question. And it was also the hardest part of the whole thing, was figuring out a voice and a tone lyrically. I think that the music part felt very connected to everything I've done for the last ten years and previous to that, even. Lyrics were something that I was not completely new to but definitely in a sort of professional context. But that actually took a long time and felt different enough that I hear a tone that I'm not hearing often, or at least wasn't hearing a lot in the summer of 2015, maybe the world has moved since then. I think the trick was I was singing to a recording program and I distorted the hell out of my voice. For whatever side of psychoanalytic reason that made me sort of turn off a lot of the self doubt stuff that was stopping myself from really getting started. It felt out of character but it felt different enough where I could take it seriously, in a way that was hard for me previously.
Had you had much experience with songwriting before? It's very storytelling-oriented. What influenced you?
This is kind of a joke, but kind of not a joke, but I feel like the elevator pitch for this album is like, Reel Big Fish meets Leonard Cohen, or Blink 182 meets Randy Newman. One of those two. Your choice. The first song that came was "Pretty Good WiFi," which I think was the start of it, and then something where I realized I can just write songs about how I actually think about things. Or how I actually have conversations with people. Once I felt that I sort of felt comfortable doing that or feeling that that was in some ways stronger than trying to outright Max Martin or something. That's where I felt the album came from, realizing that I can just be myself, as opposed to trying to be some person who's very sure that this party is killer.
The album grapples with a specific kind of American identity at a very specific time in America, and you yourself are very politically active. What was your experience writing these songs in 2015 versus putting them out in 2017?
I wrote most these songs under the specter of the Republican primary season. So, it was dark but there was sort of a lightness to it still—like a lot of people, a total shitshow was not necessarily what I expected to happen. There was a very distinct moment when I had a rehearsal with a band scheduled two days after the election. The record had been done, was written by the fall of 2015, before stuff really got interesting. I don't think anyone wanted to rehearse at all, just because everyone was a little bit numb. Everything was feeling very raw. And then these songs felt incredibly different to think about after the election, after the results versus before, with some of the lines like, "Can I be more than just a sad, white man?" [from "Flag on the Can"], after sad white men cast their votes in a certain way. I feel more raw or something, now. I guess they were written from a place of perceived safety, and now that the tone of the world has changed, the songs take on a different view. Things that I thought were more humorous are not humorous anymore. [Laughs] I think that's the best way I can put it.
Where did the name come from?
The project is called Dams of the West, and I think the initial impulse was because my name is Chris Tomson, which is a perfectly fine legal name. Looks great on a social security card, but is not necessarily interesting as an artist name. Probably 85 perfect of names made, there's a character to them, a projection within them that it felt right to also make that true of the artists and the project. So I came up with Dams of the West, as in Hoover, after reading a few articles and different perspectives talking about the debate on a lot of actual dams in the actual Western United States, about how they've sort of outlived their usefulness, they were good for what they did, but we should take them down, let the rivers run free as it were. And then there are other people that say, no they're still serving their purpose, they just need a little work and they're still good.
To me—and some of the songs are specifically about this—as a straight white dude, writing generally rock 'n' roll songs in this day and age, I felt a certain camaraderie with planned obsolescence. That was some of these feeling that I had been working through. I felt kindred reading this story. Dams of the West is sort of the truest answer I can give.
People love to declare that about indie music, or guitar music. Having been in one of the most massive bands emerging from that and the sort of Pitchfork generation, how do those conversations make you feel now that it's getting older?
Well, again this is kind of like the election stuff, it's easy to have those conversations and say, "Ah, the world is changed." But then, maybe it hasn't. [Laughs] In terms of genres and phases, that has happened forever and will continue to. So whether guitars are less popular now or will be more popular in five years, I think if someone makes something good and true and fun, it doesn't really matter, and I certainly don't take any personal offense.
I understand there's a new Vampire Weekend project in the works down the road. How has doing a solo project influenced what you might be doing when you return to the studio with them?
I'm actually very excited to get back on the road and dig into Vampire Weekend again. I think I see things differently, where maybe I was confused about our decision or disagreed with something but now, being on a different side of it, I can see reasons that I didn't see at the time. I was also probably an idiot 26 year old. I think of Dams of the West as a sustainable concurrent thing related to Vampire Weekend. It will neither wholly take me away from it or I'll just drop it completely as soon as Vampire Weekend comes back, but I do think that it will make me a better member and has made me a better member of Vampire Weekend.
Do you see yourself contributing to the songwriting more directly?
That's always been a little bit case by case. It depends on what comes up. I can only say one sentence about Vampire Weekend LP4: It will exist at some future point, period.
Chris, you were already working on the project when your bandmate suggested that you get in touch with Pat. Pat, what made you interested in wanting to work on this in full?
Patrick Carney: Chris reached out in September or October of 2015 and asked if I'd be interested and sent along like four songs, and I really liked his voice and the lyrics a lot.He had an understanding of exactly what he wanted to do and I think just needed someone to help organize the process a little bit. We found a studio, we put together a budget to kind of keep the expenses low and started working, and I think that one of the roles that I played was just kind of troubleshooting the process. Once we got going it was kind of hands off for me, I think.
The album has a cohesive sound and feel, but it touches on a lot of different genres and styles. Can you talk a little bit about that evolution? Was that sort of the intent from the get go, or did it kind of emerge over the course of recording?
Tomson: I think most of the songs are kind of just way better versions of the demos. The demos sound like shit, but I think, I remember there were two songs specifically where Pat, you did the most arrangement wise or sort of, I didn't have any ideas. I essentially didn't have any ideas, were "Polo Grounds" and "Flag on the Can." I remember "Flag on the Can" especially where I was like nervous about using distorted guitars and you said no no it's cool, don't worry about it. And I feel like you did that a lot for me, where I would get like, tweaky or in my own head, you just kind of prodded me along and just said, don't worry about it just do it, it's fine.
Carney: This record was fun to make. It was one of those things where the demos were constructed so that the things that had to be filled in were actually just kind of, there was no inherent problem, you know? There was more just kind of some fleshing out that you know, it seemed to be kind of logical what needed to be done but it was just, I think, you know for me when I go in the studio and someone is producing one of the most beneficial things that they can do is just kind of take an idea that you have pretty much fully formed to basically unravel it a little bit so you can see all the elements clearly. So that's why I think it's good for all bands to kind of work with someone to just kind of help them to kind of organize it differently, or maybe get a different perspective of what their own song is, or something.
What was your dynamic working together? What was it like taking a song like "Polo Grounds," for example, from Chris's own demo to what we hear on the album?
Tomson: "Polo Grounds" is the song that I had the least ideas for outside of like, the lyric and melody. I showed up with just a straight up piano and voice thing, which is not very good. It's there, but it's quite rough. I remember Pat really constructing a beat. I feel like you did this guitar thing, like a flange or something that was on the beat that we sort of built everything off of. Do you remember building that one up specifically?
Carney: Yeah. I'm not sure when we started, we were kind of just getting things going. Chris played this guitar through a bunch of tremolo, and we ended up making a loop out of the tremolo guitar and using that as like the click track, so it was a little tricky to do. But it ended up with this really cool, kind of like pulsating, moody pad. My favorite part of that song is the string arrangements that Chris did.
I think that the way we were working in the studios is the way I like to work in the studio where it's just trying to create something with someone else that we both really like. Part of that is just being creative, throwing ideas around. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't. As a whole, I think I'm really proud of the way that Chris' record turned out and he obviously did all the heavy lifting, because he wrote all the songs and performed them all. He did the artist thing, which is to come out of the shadows and play drums and start singing, and being comfortable doing that, and now he's on tour performing songs. I've seen one show and it blew my mind, and it was an early show. The reviews I read of this record are kind of dismissive, but in terms of the lyrics, the lyric are my favorite part of the record.
Working on this album was the first time you had met, right?
Carney: We ran into each other here or there, but I don't think we really met until we started the record and Chris came to Nashville for maybe 12 days or something. He came back in January for like another eight days and we finished the record. But the dynamic, you know, Chris is a really chill guy and super funny and he's also very focused, so we were constantly staying busy throughout the work day and also, you know, fucking around occasionally and having fun getting to know each other. I think the dynamic was pretty relaxed.
Chris, was this your first time recording in Nashville?
Tomson: Yes, yeah. We worked at a studio called Haptown studios. And yeah, I would agree with what the dynamic was. I was nervous on a few levels not really knowing Pat, but then also not having done, fulfilled this role of like driving the recording. But yeah, I can also say Pat is a very chill guy and hilarious, so I think that there was, and also being drummers in bands that have done well, we didn't have to have a lot of conversations. I think we had a lot in common despite the bands being very different where there was a certain base where we could work from immediately.
Finally, let's talk about "Death Wish" and how that fits in with the album.
Tomson: "Death Wish" started off with my very rudimentary, three finger piano playing. I think the sound is different but it sort of runs through the whole song in the final version of these sort of two chords back and forth. And that one, I'm trying to remember, I do actually think this is not true with all of the songs, but this in particular, the first line of the song was the first idea of the song, of having a conversation about dental hygiene and sort of realizing that it's not a joke. [ laughs] And uh, you know, just the idea of flossing or not is a very minor concept, unless your a dentist, I suppose. But I just thought that was indicative of a larger sense of self preservation or not. So it's not really about flossing or not flossing but sort of that idea of being older now and what am I doing to take care of myself? What am I doing to like, make sure I'll live as long as my natural body will give me. So that idea of sort of aging and sort of flossing being sort of a smaller, ideally more humorous aspect of it, but it is sort of was something I was thinking about like, am I going to live to see 60? Am I going to live to see 70? That was like the initial idea, and then yeah like a few other points in the song, namely, trying to accept the world but also keep my clothes off the floor. I think it's the balance of, at least for me as I get older, you know, I still struggle with some of the very mundane human things, and I've never been good at putting my clothes away. That remains a problem, but also sort of understanding that goes along with being an empathetic person and trying to be a good person. So that song is kind of about both of those things and trying to pay attention to and work on both.
Andrea Domanick is Noisey's West Coast Editor. Follow her on Twitter.